How much does our gene limit free will?

Many of us believe that we are masters of our destiny, but new research reveals how much our behavior is influenced by our genes.

It has become possible to decipher our individual genetic code, a sequence of 3.2 billion DNA “characters” unique to each of us that form the blueprint for our brain and body.

This sequence reveals how much of our behavior has a biological predisposition. That is, it may be biased towards the development of certain attributes or characteristics. Studies have shown that genes can predispose to vulnerabilities to mental illness, longevity, intelligence, and impulsivity, as well as our height, eye color, and weight. Such properties are more or less written into our genes — sometimes thousands of genes work together.

Most of these genes dictate how our brain circuits are located and function in the uterus. Now you can see how your baby’s brain is being built, even 20 weeks before birth. Circuit changes are present in the brain that strongly correlate with genes that predispose to autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are even predisposed to conditions that may not appear for decades, such as bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia.

We are increasingly faced with the prospect that predisposition to more complex behaviors is also linked to our brain. These include the religions we choose, how to form political ideologies, and even how to create friendship groups.

Nature and growth are intertwined

In addition to being inscribed in our DNA, our life stories have ways to be passed down from generation to generation.

“Epigenetics” is a relatively new field of science that can reveal how nature and nurturing are intertwined. It focuses on the “tags” attached to genes from life experience, not changes in the genes themselves, which changes the way our genes are expressed.

A 2014 study examined epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet scent of cherries, so when the weft reaches the nose, the pleasure zone of the brain brightens and motivates them to run around and look for treats. Researchers decided to combine this odor with a mild electric shock and learned that mice quickly freeze in anticipation.

Research has found that this new memory has been passed on from generation to generation. The mouse grandchildren were afraid of cherries, even though they had not experienced an electric shock. My grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint for the genetically entwined experience.

As this is ongoing research and new science, the question remains as to how these mechanisms apply to humans. However, preliminary results indicate that epigenetic changes can affect the offspring of highly traumatic events.

According to one study, the sons of Civil War POWs had an 11% higher mortality rate by their mid-40s. Another small study showed that Holocaust survivors and their children produced epigenetic changes in genes associated with levels of the hormone cortisol, which is involved in the stress response. In a complex situation, the results show that offspring are susceptible to anxiety disorders due to their high net cortisol levels.

Is there room for free will?

Of course, our lives are not only carved into stone by our natural brain, the DNA given by our parents, and the memories inherited from our grandparents.

Thankfully, there is still room for change. As we learn, new connections are formed between nerve cells. When new skills are put into practice or learning is revived, connections are strengthened and learning is integrated into memory. Repeated access to memory becomes the default route for electrical signals in the brain, making learned behavior a habit.

For example, ride a bicycle. I don’t know how to ride when I was born, but I can learn how to ride by repeating trial and error and repeating small crashes several times in the middle.

Similar principles form the basis of both perception and navigation. We make and strengthen neural connections as we move around in the environment and evoke the perception of the space that surrounds us.

But there are pitfalls. Learning in the past can obscure the truth of the future. Watch the video below — we are all biased towards seeing faces in our environment. This setting ignores the shadow queue, which indicates that it is the backend of the mask. Instead, we rely on trial-and-error routes in the brain to produce different facial images.

You probably won’t notice that Albert Einstein’s face is on the back of the mask, not the front, as our brain is biased towards seeing the face in our environment.

This illusion shows how difficult it is to change our minds. Our identity and expectations are based on past experience. Too much cognitive energy can be needed to break the framework of our minds.

Elegant machine

As explored in the latest book, The Science of Fate, published last year, this study touches on one of the greatest mysteries of life, our personal choice.

For me, there is something beautiful about seeing ourselves as elegant machines. Inputs from the world are processed by our unique brain and produce the output that is our behavior.

However, many of us may not want to give up the idea of ​​being a free agent. Biological determinism, the idea that human behavior is completely innate, naturally strains people. It is abominable to think that horrifying acts in our history have been done by those who have no power to stop them. Because it causes anxiety that they may happen again.

Perhaps instead we can think of ourselves as Unrestricted By our genes. Recognizing the biology that influences our personality may empower us to better pool our strengths and utilize our collective cognitive abilities to better shape the world. ..

Hannah Krichlow, Science Outreach Fellow at Magdalen College, Cambridge University

This article has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Please read the original article.

How much does our gene limit free will?

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